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Immigration 101: Who is William Barr, Trump’s New Attorney General Nominee?

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On December 7, 2018, Donald Trump announced he would nominate immigration hardliner William Barr to be his next attorney general, succeeding immigration hardliner Jeff Sessions, who was forced out in November. Barr was previously the attorney general under George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, and has been in private practice for the last two decades. Barr’s public comments and actions the last time he was attorney general indicate that he, like Jeff Sessions, will likely continue the anti-immigrant assault being waged by the Trump Administration. As Dara Lind at Vox succinctly put it, whether “or not Trump knows it, he’s picked an attorney general who knows how to run the kind of immigration policy Trump likes: one that cracks down first and asks questions later.” And as Mark Joseph Stern at Slate noted: “Barr is Jeff Sessions without the baggage.”

Barr supports the Trump Administration’s extreme anti-immigrant policies

Barr stood with the Trump Administration on the Muslim ban and has defended Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. On the Muslim ban, Barr spoke up after Trump issued the first Muslim ban and after acting AG Sally Yates was fired for refusing to defend it. The day after, Barr wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post echoing Trump’s inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric in defense of the firing and the ban alike. Barr said he saw “no plausible grounds for disputing the order’s lawfulness.” Both Trump’s first and second Muslim bans were blocked by the courts within days.) Barr’s defense of the Muslim ban suggested an unlikeliness to act as a bulwark against the unconstitutional impulses of the Administration.

Barr has also cheered the anti-immigrant zeal of Jeff Sessions. Again in an op-ed at the Washington Post, Barr praised Sessions’ tenure as attorney general after the latter was pushed out of Trump Administration. Barr specifically applauded Sessions for his hyper-aggressive and indiscriminate pursuit of undocumented immigrants: “he attacked the rampant illegality that riddled our immigration system, breaking the record for prosecution,” Barr wrote. This praise seems to indicate that Barr will be Sessions 2.0 on immigration and dutifully fall in line behind Trump.  

Barr promoted extreme anti-immigrant policies as attorney general in the 1990s

As Attorney General in early ’90s, William Barr pushed an anti-immigrant agenda with inflammatory rhetoric that prefigured the Trump Administration’s stance. Barr spoke about immigration with many of the same mischaracterizations we commonly hear today: “we have people who are not willing to stand in line under the fair system but come crashing in the back door,” said Barr in 1994. Barr proposed harsh changes to immigration policy, used fear-mongering to gain support, and was highly suspect of asylum seekers. Sound familiar?

Shortly after Barr became attorney general, Haiti suffered a massively destabilizing coup that overthrew its first democratically elected government. Fearing for their lives, thousands of Haitian refugees attempted to flee to the United States. The military was “literally pulling people out their homes to execute them in the streets,” said Ira Kurzban, an attorney and refugees advocate. Kurzban told CBS News that a near-certain death sentence awaited people who returned to Haiti after they fled.

Instead of providing support for the refugees, Barr oversaw an effort to send them back to Haiti, until a court challenged the practice. Barr then sent some 12,000 Haitian refugees to the prison at Guantanamo Bay because they were HIV positive. It was “the world’s first and only detention camp for refugees with HIV,” according to Michael Ratner, one of the attorneys who fought against the practice. Ratner’s success in court ended Barr’s HIV detention center in 1993. Ratner also claimed a high-level attorney in the Bush Administration told him “Attorney General Barr believed that everyone who was HIV-positive should be returned to Haiti.” Barr continued to defend his treatment of Haitian refugees long after the court ruled against the practice.  

In addition to trying to keep out Haitian asylum seekers, Barr expressed disdain for the process as a whole. Barr frequently complained about the national and international humanitarian asylum laws which prevented the immediate deportations he sought. As an asylum seeker “you set foot in the United States, and you’re caught, you can’t put them on a plane and send them away if they say, ‘I want to claim asylum,’” Barr once complained. In 1993, Barr proposed “summary deportation proceedings to weed out patently phony claims for asylum” and claimed — without proof — that the “abuse” of asylum laws was one “of the biggest problems we have with immigration.” Barr’s existing distaste for asylum is not good news for migrants, considering the Trump Administration’s already-documented practice of turning away asylum seekers at the border.

In 1992, Barr proposed that  noncitizens convicted of a crime should be “summarily deported without the need to go through costly, protracted proceedings.” Barr’s proposal was, for one, unnecessary, because such deportations were already routine policy. His idea also violated due process rights, according to a staff attorney for the group Public Counsel in Los Angeles. In promoting the policy, Barr used aggressive language familiar to Trump’s rhetoric today. “We will not tolerate aliens who come here to prey on the American people,” said Barr.

Finally, in 1992, Barr attempted to place some of the unrest around the Rodney King protests on immigration. “The problem of immigration enforcement — making sure we have a fair set of rules and then enforce them — I think that’s certainly relevant to the problems we’re seeing in Los Angeles,” Barr said. As Dara Lind at Vox wrote: “Relations between LA’s black and immigrant communities, particularly its Korean community, are definitely part of the story of the LA riots, but Barr’s stance that insufficient immigration enforcement was to blame wasn’t widely shared.”